Budgies can catch the urge to yawn from watching other budgies do it, according to a new study that suggests the birds are the first known non-mammalian species to engage in contagious yawning.
You’re probably familiar with the concept of “contagious yawning,” because humans do it, too. We’re among a handful of animals — until now, all mammals — that have been known to catch a yawn. Domestic dogs and chimpanzees, along with the high-yawning Sprague-Dawley rat, also engage in contagious yawning.
Study author Andrew Gallup of State University of New York at Oneonta said he first suspected budgerigars (Melopsittacus undulatus), also known as parakeets, might catch yawns from other budgies while he was researching the birds’ yawning behaviors for another experiment, he told The Washington Post in a telephone interview. To test them, Gallup and his team designed two separate studies.
In the first study, the team placed two live birds in isolated cages, separated by a transparent barrier. Then, the researchers waited for one of them to yawn, which usually happens one to three times each hour, Gallup said.
In that same study, the team also tracked yawns among pairs of budgies separated by an opaque barrier. They repeated the process with 16 birds.
“Consistent with our predictions, when they were visible to each other, the yawns were closely spaced in time,” Gallup said. But when the opaque barrier was in place, the budgies’ yawns appeared to be “completely randomly distributed.”
Like the other animals that have been shown to catch yawns, budgies are very social. In the wild, they live in large flocks.
Gallup used two isolated flocks of budgies for his work, which allowed researchers to test whether the yawns traveled only among birds who knew each other, or whether it was possible for a budgie to catch a yawn from a “stranger.”
The results indicated that it didn’t really matter whether the pairs of birds were familiar with each other or not — if they could see the other bird yawn, there was a chance it could be contagious.
For the second experiment, the team wanted to see whether a budgie could catch a yawn from video stimuli. The team recorded a single budgie in a cage, yawning away whenever it pleased, and then spliced together clips of several different yawns in rapid succession.
The birds were shown a rotation of the yawning mash-up, along with a control video that did not show budgies yawning. When shown the video of the yawning budgies, the live birds yawned twice as often, Gallup found.
Some researchers, including Gallup, believe that contagious yawning behavior in different species could be connected to a primitive form of empathy. Frans de Waal of Emory University in Georgia told the New Scientist that “contagious yawning by itself is not exactly empathy, but it hints at the tendency to mimic and synchronize with the bodies of others” and that the “process is probably the basis of mammalian empathy.”
Although Gallup’s experiments don’t tell us everything about the contagious yawning behavior among budgies, it has potentially interesting implications for future experiments. “Since contagious yawning may represent a primitive form of empathy,” the study reads, “unequivocally demonstrating the presence of this behavior in a laboratory animal, with the ability to manipulate it experimentally, could be important for exploring basic questions related to this cognitive capacity.”